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Beyond the Infodemic: COVID-19 and Coronavirus Scams

Widespread disinformation about the COVID-19 crisis can have a number of purposes. Maybe it’s meant to influence your feelings for or against a political party or candidate. Perhaps it’s an effort to increase traffic to a particular website, making it more marketable to advertisers. It might minimize the danger of COVID-19 to garner support for relaxing social distancing rules, or exaggerate the danger to sell products like masks or disinfectants.

But there’s a more sinister reason behind some of the false information circulating through the country: scams.

Scams are nothing new, of course. Before the pandemic, it seemed like every week there was a new warning about emails to rob you of passwords and personal information, or robocalls to trick you into giving up access to your finances.

But scams thrive on fear and uncertainty, two things that are abundant during a global pandemic. Fear of the virus and the terrible illness it can cause, along with uncertainty about its spread and the economic consequences, can make ordinarily cautious people into very easy targets for scammers.

What to Watch For

As soon as the new coronavirus began hitting the news, related healthcare scams began to surface. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has issued warning letters to dozens of companies for selling products they claimed could prevent, treat or cure COVID-19. These include essential oils, homeopathic drugs and dietary supplements that could in no way fulfill the promises they advertised.

The FBI has now issued its own public warning about scams related to COVID-19 testing and treatment. Scammers are contacting people by phone and email to tell them they’re required by the government to get tested because of recent exposure to an infected person, or that a loved one’s recent exposure requires immediate payment for treatment. The shocked recipient of these communications may then offer up their health insurance information (leading to a fraudulent bill) or an up-front payment for a test that never arrives.

Some of these scams have nothing to do with getting sick, but they prey on people who are distracted by that possibility. Scams involving cryptocurrency, including blackmail attempts, work-from-home schemes and investment rip-offs are all on the rise, along with the already-infamous IRS impersonators.

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FTC – how to stop calls from fake numbers

What You Can Do

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has listed five things you can do to avoid these scams. They also have several videos on this topic, and a printable handout that might be helpful for friends and relatives who prefer printed information.

The Department of Justice website has a long list of fraudulent activities that are taking advantage of COVID-19 fears. If you think you have been the target of one of them, contact their National Center for Disaster Fraud with as much information as you can offer about the experience.

Aside from fear and uncertainty, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought another change in our daily life that contributes to the success of these scams. Isolation from others, who would otherwise know about our day-to-day dealings and help us avoid danger, leaves us vulnerable to the tricks of scammers and less able to turn them away.

Don’t let the intense emotions of this time make you or your loved ones a target. Approach each offer with skepticism and an investigative mind. And don’t forget to check in with friends and relatives who you aren’t seeing as often (especially older relatives, who are often the prime targets for scams) to make sure COVID-19 hasn’t brought an unexpected danger to their doorstep.






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